31 March 2013

Is One’s Choice of Best Robin Generational?

Chris Sims of Comics Alliance (and, earlier, the Invincible Super-Blog) posted a very good essay this week on the questions: “Who is or was the best Robin? What is the Best Robin moment in Comic Book History?”

Ultimately Sims decides that what defines Robin is helping Batman, and by that measure he chooses Tim Drake as the best. That approach allows him to praise Dick Grayson for having been Robin and leaving that role to become a major character in the DC Universe. He also finds the best Robin moment when Carrie Kelly fully adopts the role, not through any feat of acrobatics or detection but simply in assuring Batman that he has help.

I see only one major flaw in the essay, and it’s part of Sims’s argument in favor of Tim Drake:

Tim's not in it for himself, and a lot of that comes from the simple fact that he doesn't need to be. When he first appears, he doesn't have a tragedy that defines his past and drives him to seek vengeance. In fact, he has the exact opposite: It's not really exaggerating to say that he's the single most privileged, well-adjusted character in the entire Batman mythos. He's rich enough to live more-or-less next door to Wayne Manor, he has two loving (and living) parents. The one thing that drives him is that he's a kid who loves Batman.
But why does Tim (like Sims) love Batman? A big part of the reason, I think, is that he doesn’t have “two loving (and living) parents” with him anymore. When Tim first connects with Batman and puts on the Robin suit, his parents Jack and Janet have parked him at a boarding school while they travel the world doing business deals and sniping at each other. Tim’s interest in Dick Grayson isn’t fueled just by having met the young circus flyer on a bad night; he also hungers for a family. His interest in Batman isn’t just driven by justice; it’s also a desire for an admirable father in his life.

Soon after Tim starts interning in the bat-cave (though that was before the term “interning” had escaped the confines of the medical field), his mother is killed and his father paralyzed by a criminal in Haiti. DC Comics planned for Jack Drake to die soon as well, making Tim’s trajectory the same as the preceding Robins: orphaned by crime, taken in by Bruce Wayne. But scripter Chuck Dixon kept arguing (and demonstrating) that there was more drama in keeping the man alive.

Instead, for more than a decade Tim juggled life with his father and life with Batman, which set him apart from past Robins. And it’s tough to say which man caused Tim more trouble. Jack Drake fell in love with his physical therapist Dana and married her, moved the family out of Gotham and then back, sent Tim to another boarding school, lost all his money, found out about Tim’s double life, and so on. An underlying theme of the Robin comics then was that Tim was actually the more dependable and responsible of the Drakes, the one who was really looking after other people.

In other words, Tim still needed the strong father figure of Batman in his life, whether he could admit that or not. That’s why I don’t think Tim Drake became Robin just for justice. He also had private psychological needs compelling him to take on that role. (Another underlying theme, stronger in the 2000s, was that Tim was also often more mature than Bruce Wayne.)

I also suspect Chris Sims has a particular perspective on the Robins question based on his age—or more particularly on the age when he was reading superhero comics most avidly. Now I recognize that as a professional comics writer with a specialty in Batman he’s still reading superhero comics avidly, and that he’s consumed and considered the canon published back before he started. Nonetheless, I think that the stories one read as a child and young adolescent exert the strongest emotional tug and establish one’s expectations.

In another essay Sims has stated that he was twelve in 1994 when he started to collect back issues. In other words, he was at that crucial age when:
  • Tim Drake was established as Robin. Furthermore, by then Tim had his father and stepmother at home (hence the “loving parents” understanding).
  • Jason Todd was established as the dead Robin, the possibly homicidal Robin, the Robin that haunted Bruce Wayne. As I’ve written, this characterization didn’t solidify until after 1989.
  • Dick Grayson was established as Nightwing, the former Robin, but the New Titans were past their glory days.
  • Carrie Kelly was a possible future Robin who appeared in one revolutionary volume.
And it’s those figures that dominate Sims’s essay.

The Robin that came before—the first, red-haired Jason Todd—gets less than a sentence. Of the Robins that came later, Stephanie Brown is dismissed with a hand wave (“Stacy?”). Jason Todd’s return from the dead is treated as an unnecessary, unfortunate change that doesn’t affect his symbolic significance. Damian Wayne gets a longer analysis, and a good one, but it still seems clear that Sims’s heart is back in the 1990s.
Another essayist might conclude that Dick Grayson is the best Robin because he established the mold not just for that character but for all kid sidekicks in superhero comics; because he provided the emotion and humor that the first year of Batman stories lacked; because he was popular enough to appear on more DC covers of the 1940s than any other character; because his relationship with Bruce Wayne offered the only ongoing emotional depth in Batman comics for two decades; because he set the standard all subsequent sidekicks aspire to. And that reader probably read the comics of the 1940s and 1950s at a crucial age.

Yet another fan might argue that Dick is the best Robin because Batman could rely on him whether they were fighting gangsters or extraterrestrials; because he symbolized the best of America’s youth but would, both Alfred and Earth-2 agreed, grow up to be a crime-fighter; because he had no powers but was still the Teen Titans’ leader and badass; because as “Teen Wonder” he offered DC Comics a way to gingerly explore youth culture. And that reader probably read the comics of the 1960s and 1970s, and watched the ABC TV show, at a crucial age.

As I’ve written several times, my first prolonged exposure to superhero comics was the Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s collection, which emphasized the stories between Robin’s arrival in 1940 and the “New Look” of 1964. And the last superhero comics I was reading in my late teens was the New Teen Titans series in which Dick Grayson made the leap to become Nightwing.

So for me that character wasn’t always a former Robin, and the goofy, shallow stories of the 1950s aren’t just quaint embarrassments—though they were juvenile adventures that Dick Grayson’s character helped lead the company away from as he matured in the early 1980s. Sims’s analysis is rooted in DC’s post-Crisis universe; my expectations were established before the Crisis struck.
For other readers, younger than both of us, Stephanie Brown’s brief period as Robin might loom much larger because it came at a crucial time in their own exploration of Batman comics, and Jason Todd might not be the dead Robin but the Robin who returned from the dead and is still not fully part of the family. Some such readers might prefer those other Robins, arguing that they had so few of Tim’s advantages (and so little of his support from the publisher and the fans he was clearly designed to reflect).

Even younger readers might have just had their expectations shaped by the presence of Damian Wayne for the past few years, seeing him as the best Robin (just as he’d want). Readers whose notions are being shaped by the “New 52” universe are also seeing quite a different Tim Drake, with a different family history and different challenges to overcome. So they may well come to a different conclusion about the best Robin.

I’m not saying that everyone of Sims’s comics-reading generation would agree with him while his arguments would fail on everyone else. I just think that his essay and its conclusions reflect the age when comics meant the most of him, and probably resonate most strongly with people of similar experiences.

Because my own experience starts before Dick Grayson was a former Robin, I’m inclined to see more of the essence of Robin in him, and to see Tim Drake as striving always to match that nearly Platonic model (which Dick might be the first to acknowledge he himself didn’t always attain).

But I’ve become very fond of the first Tim as well, and wouldn’t want to give up either character. As I wrote back here, I imagine Tim would agree that Dick was the best Robin and Dick would say Tim was.

Of course, Sims might argue that Tim’s ability to win over a crotchety reader who grew up with Grayson is actually evidence that Tim deserves top honors.

(And the best Robin moment of all time? It’s in The Dark Knight Returns, to be sure. But it’s when Carrie is ready to hold off Superman with an effin’ slingshot.)

29 March 2013

The Chief Justice and His Convictions

There was strong competition for this week’s example of OIP Derangement Syndrome, but I decided to give the prize to Chief Justice John Roberts as an example of how the problem can affect even people who pride themselves on being intelligent, fair-minded, and scrupulous.

This issue was why President Barack Obama instructed his administration to continue enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act even as he decided that law is unconstitutional and indefensible in the courts.

As the New York Times reported:
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. accused Mr. Obama from the bench on Wednesday of not having “the courage of his convictions” for continuing to enforce the marriage law even after concluding that it violated constitutional equal protection guarantees. The chief justice’s needling touched a raw nerve at the White House. “Continuing to enforce was a difficult political decision,” said an aide who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, “but the president felt like it was the right legal choice.”

Other presidents have enforced laws that they no longer defended in court, including the first George Bush, whose acting solicitor general, a man named John Roberts, once asked the Supreme Court to overturn an affirmative action program at the Federal Communications Commission.
Thus, a little over twenty years ago Roberts was himself involved in a similar decision about a law the administration disagreed with. The President he was working for came to the same conclusion as the current President, to have his appointees adhere to the law while also having Roberts argue against it. But for some reason this President lacks “the courage of his convictions.”

It’s not too hard to imagine how Republicans in Congress, many of them already showing the signs of OIP Derangement Syndrome, would have responded if President Obama had declared his administration would set aside DOMA without judicial or legislative approval. As the Times reported, in the White House people had argued that action “would provoke a furor in the Republican House and theoretically even risk articles of impeachment.”

By one measure, to be sure, Roberts was consistent. Back in the Bush administration he argued against a progressive policy designed to open opportunities to people who’ve traditionally been kept out. From the bench he’s arguing the same thing.

28 March 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Bechdel Test

Critics of Oz the Great and Powerful have been lauding L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a first-wave feminist fable, but I started to wonder: Does it pass the Bechdel Test? It certainly has more than two female characters, and they certainly do talk to each other. But do they talk about something other than a man? That last question looks a bit iffy for a while.

Dorothy and Aunt Em don’t actually have a conversation in the first chapter. Aunt Em just calls out, “Quick, Dorothy! Run for the cellar!”

The first woman (or character) Dorothy has a long conversation with is the Good Witch of the North, and that conversation eventually focuses on a man: the Wizard.

In her journey to the Emerald City, Dorothy talks with two more female characters: the Queen of the Field Mice and a housewife outside the city. But they both talk about the scary Cowardly Lion.

In the city itself, Dorothy chats with a young maid in the palace; later Baum named this character Jellia Jamb. They discuss clothes and the Wizard.

Dorothy then sets off to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. The Witch captures the little girl with the help of her winged monkeys, and at last there’s an extended exchange of words that’s not about the Wizard or the Lion. So in chapter 12 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does indeed pass the Bechdel Test. Of course, the conversation between those two female characters is all about shoes. (Way to undermine the stereotype!) And it doesn’t end well for both parties.
In the rest of the book, Dorothy converses again with the Queen of the Field Mice about the Golden Cap. On her journey to the south she talks with the Princess of the China Country. And finally she meets Glinda and has a really substantive conversation about her adventure, who should rule parts of Oz, and how to get home.

By that point in the book, the Wizard is no longer a factor; both his humbug magic and his shaky ballooning skills have come up short. Dorothy has learned to stop relying on that man.

That’s when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gives up the pretense of revolving about its title character and focuses on its real center: the change Dorothy unleashes everywhere that she and her companions go. That’s one reason I think the book’s final act, which can seem like an anticlimax, are in fact crucial to its tale.

27 March 2013

Oh, Little China Girl

One of the new characters in Oz the Great and Powerful is the China Girl, an inhabitant of a village of china people who appear to have been genocidally destroyed by the Wicked Witch’s Flying Baboons. (She’s also the fairyland avatar of a disabled girl whom the carnival wizard can’t help back in Kansas.)

The china village is obviously inspired by a chapter L. Frank Baum interpolated into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy and her companions visit a China Country on their way south to Glinda’s palace. In that chapter, Dorothy wants to take a China Princess home to her aunt but is dissuaded. In the movie, China Girl demands that Oz take her along on his adventure.

There are various ways to read the character’s behavior in that scene. On the one hand, China Girl is insistent on her right to go on an adventure. On the other hand, she casts herself as a fragile little creature who shouldn’t be left on the Yellow Brick Road alone. Of course, she is a fragile little creature; we just saw her legs broken, and she’s less than a foot tall. China Girl clings weepily to Oz’s leg, but as soon as he agrees to take her she trots off happily. I think it’s clear that China Girl’s behavior is a ploy to manipulate Oz, the master manipulator. But in that effort she invokes gender stereotypes.

During the movie’s climax, China Girl plays an important role, bravely bringing Glinda her wand. (The fact that China Girl doesn’t use the wand herself implies the magic of this Oz differs from that in Baum’s Oz, where most magical tools can be wielded by anyone who holds them.) She’s also one of the two characters who asks anything specific of Oz beyond regime change, and ends the movie as his informally adopted daughter.

Illustrator Ben Wood noted a resemblance between the design of China Girl and how John R. Neill drew Dorothy in later Oz books, as he showed in the image above. He wrote, “It was a smart way to add her in without really adding her.” I’m not sure that’s what the moviemakers had in mind, but China Girl does provide more interest and, ironically, someone to identify with.

26 March 2013

Gender Politics in the Latest Oz

I’ve noted a couple of feminist critiques of Oz the Great and Powerful, one from Aisha Harris based on early previews and another from Elisabeth Rappe based on seeing the whole movie. I thought those critics made good points about the irony of taking L. Frank Baum’s fairyland, where little girls overthrow humbug rulers and the most powerful person is a sorceress, and pulling out a story all about a man.

But I wasn’t convinced that the main female characters in the new movie—the three witches Theodora, Evanora, and Glinda—really went gaga over the humbug Oz. And did even Glinda lack all “agency,” or independent thought and action? Having now seen Oz the Great and Powerful, I think those critiques were a little overblown. But in the main they’re sound analyses of how the Hollywood moviemakers adapted Baum’s mythos to mainstream storytelling expectations.

From the start, much of this project’s attraction for producer Joe Roth was the man at its center, as he told Jim Hill: “During the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios, I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You’ve got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by.”

In fact, as the recent Jack and the Beanstalk movie shows, there are many fairy tales about young men, and adapting those for the big screen is no guarantee of box-office success. Still, Hollywood producers believe, and with some reason, that the key to an international blockbuster that can pay for a production budget of well over $100 million is to bring in lots of male moviegoers, and for that it helps to have a male protagonist.

Once the moviemakers put the man called Oz at the center of their tale, his desires and character development defined their plot, according to the tight storytelling approach that Hollywood usually uses. Other characters, male and female, work around him, talk about him, and react to his actions and desires. In that respect Oz the Great and Powerful is no different from Lincoln.

Within the fiction of Oz the Great and Powerful, the inhabitants of Oz are in the grips of a religious belief. Their king with magical powers has been killed, and they eagerly await his return or the arrival of his successor, also with magical powers, to put everything right. Folks who grew up in western civilization shouldn’t have a hard time recognizing the durability of this way of thinking. That milieu explains why, as Rappe says, “the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at [Oz’s] arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived.”

But of the three witches, only Theodora turns out to really believe in Oz’s magic and his amorous hints. Evanora pretends to share her sister’s faith, but views it and Oz as threats to her own power. Glinda is also happy to harness the popular belief in Oz to her own, more beneficent ends. So it’s inaccurate to say that all three witches, or even most of them, fall for Oz’s appeal. Two of the three quickly recognize him as a humbug.

I wasn’t surprised to find that Glinda sees through Oz but recognizes his potential to benefit the oppressed people. I was surprised, however, by the very late scene in the movie of Oz and Glinda sharing an amorous kiss. There’s no precedent for that in Baum’s novels or in the new movie’s real source material, the 1939 MGM film. It doesn’t seem to fit Glinda’s character even in this movie up until that point.

But evidently the moviemakers felt that a romantic pairing was necessary for a happy ending. Perhaps that’s because Oz’s seductions were an important element of the preceding plot, so that thread needed to be knotted off. But was it thought impossible for Glinda to have led on the foolish man, turn him aside, and yet remain Good? I’d have preferred Oz to realize that  Glinda had pushed him into growing as a man but he still had a way to go before he could win her, if ever.

TOMORROW: A strong female character?

25 March 2013

Never Saw It, But I Read the MAD Parody

At Film Comment, Grady Hendrix traces the rise and fall of MAD Magazine’s film parodies:

…the arrival of Mort Drucker in 1957 changed everything. Initially no one saw Drucker’s talent. Then in 1959 he drew the television parody The Night Perry Masonite Lost a Case and the basic movie parody format for the next 44 years was born.

Opening with a splash panel that took up two-thirds of the page, it was all cartooning, used square word balloons, and the dialogue was copy cast. Playing to Drucker’s strengths, The Night Perry Masonite Lost a Case opted for an extremely tame design, mandated by art directors John Putnam and Leonard Brenner, who gave Drucker his panel layouts. The panels were mostly two-shots and medium shots, usually showing the characters from the waist up.

The comedy came from Drucker’s uncanny ability to capture the likeness of an actor and then blow it up to the point where it started to deform but didn’t quite tip over into caricature. The cartoonist’s equivalent of an actor’s director, Drucker was a master of drawing hands, faces, and body language, and his approach (he wound up creating 238 movie satires) became the house style.
I was one of the young readers Hendrix writes about, being introduced to movies I couldn’t see and in many cases hadn’t heard of through their MAD parodies. Years before I saw The Godfather movies, for example, I knew the plot of the first and how the second one jumped back and forth in time.

Sometimes the MAD writers parodied movies as musicals, and that provided a double education: not just the movies but the songs the writers felt were in the American canon. Even now I remember lines from a song for James Bond set to “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” more surely than I remember the plots of any early Bond film or Oklahoma!

24 March 2013

“Gotham’s weird, but come on.”

Since Oz and Ends has been talking a lot about Oz lately, I figured the weekly Robin could get into the game.

These panels are from Batman: Gotham Adventures, #19, set in the DC Animated Universe of the 1990s. That continuity’s Tim Drake has been feeling morose because his work as Robin doesn’t seem to have a lasting effect. (This is an odd sentiment for a teenager, but then Tim was always mature for his age.)

Batgirl and Nightwing try to give Robin reasons to go on by dressing up as easily defeated costumed criminals like…Lionman!

Below are images of the Scarecrow and Metallo from the DCAU, looking much scarier than they should be for this light-hearted Bat-family tale by Scott Peterson, Tim Levins, and Terry Beatty.

23 March 2013

Less Than Noble Nobel Considerations

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported on disclosures from the Swedish Academy about the discussion behind the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. They show how many considerations there were besides literary quality.

For example, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) might well have had the inside track as a Scandinavian—but then she died, and the prize can’t be awarded posthumously. (A person can die between the announcement and the awards ceremony.)

The academy was evidently waiting for Ezra Pound to die as well. Its members considered him the greatest poet then working in English, but also politically unacceptable. That meant they wouldn’t give him the prize, but equally they wouldn’t give it to another English-language poet until he died—and that scotched the chances of Robert Graves (shown here).

So eventually the academy awarded that year’s prize to…John Steinbeck. Even at the time, he was considered not up to the standard of other literature laureates. But Steinbeck’s stature has obviously been raised by the Nobel. I wonder whether, if those other considerations hadn’t intervened, he would have had been such a presence on my junior-high reading list?

22 March 2013

Amy Kremer’s OIP Derangement Syndrome

As Talking Points Memo highlights, in September 2012 Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, told CNN, “I just don’t believe that [President Barack Obama] loves America the way that we do.” That was a follow-up to a tweet the preceding month, also claiming that the President didn’t love America.

When asked to explain her thinking, Kremer said things like: “I think he is more about a global, being a, oh, what’s the word? Being more one-world, global, with, you know, other countries, and it’s not about the shining city on the hill, the greatness that has always been America, that our founding fathers were about.” She preferred the candidate with the Cayman Island tax shelters.

However, this week Kremer looked back on how the Bush-Cheney administration invaded Iraq and said, “The American people, I don't think, have any alternative but to believe our president. That’s why he’s been elected. . . . We have to trust our leaders.”

Unless, of course, the elected leader (the choice of the American people, unlike his predecessor in 2003) is Barack Obama. In that case, Kremer voices unfounded accusations and erects doubled standards. Back in 2009 she even supported a colleague who promulgated caricatures of the President as a witch doctor. This “founder” of the Tea Party movement in that year provides a clear case of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

21 March 2013

The Real Sources of Oz the Great and Powerful

Yesterday I noted how Oz the Great and Powerful credits “the Works of L. Frank Baum” as its source but doesn’t actually draw much from that source—and what it does draw is almost entirely filtered through MGM’s Wizard of Oz from 1939.

That beloved movie is of course the main source for the new one. Oz the Great and Powerful is quite obviously an attempt to create a prequel. Yet the new movie’s makers didn’t have the rights to do so, so they played an odd game of tiptoeing to the edge of fair use and stopping just an inch away from infringement.

Thus, MGM’s Wicked Witch of the West is green with a black gown, hat, and broomstick. (W. W. Denslow’s Wicked Witch is tan with an eyepatch, jacket and patterned skirt, and umbrella.) Sam Raimi and his team couldn’t exactly copy the previous movie, so they made the witch a different shade of green.

The New York Times reported on how Disney’s lawyers advised the moviemakers to alter one Munchkin’s whiskers to be less like those in the 1939 movie. But they’re still the same singing, dancing, particolored little people of that movie, not the dignified farmers all in blue of Baum’s book.

Similarly, the end of the yellow brick road goes in circles, but not in a spiral. There are brightly colored horses grazing outside the Emerald City, but they’re several colors at once instead of in succession. Glinda’s bubbles work a little differently. The green Wicked Witch says “my pretty one” instead of “my pretty.” Oz produces the illusion of a giant heading speaking from a cloud of smoke, but it’s a different giant head. And there are no ruby slippers or silver shoes.

At times, finding a way to evoke the MGM movie without directly copying some detail still under copyright produced new creativity. The winged baboons are even more frightening than MGM’s flying monkeys. The Emerald City’s towers are reminiscent of those from the older movie, but more angled. The landscape of Oz has a verticality that was hard to portray on 1939 sound stages, much easier with CGI.

At other time, the strain of aping the MGM movie is too great. There’s a scene at the end of the Wizard conferring gifts on his companions, but his remarks aren’t nearly as interesting as the dialogue Yip Harburg wrote for Frank Morgan in the equivalent scene, and most of those characters never asked him for stuff, so the scene has no greater meaning than triggering audience nostalgia.

Plotwise, the result doesn’t hang together. Like the 1939 film, the new movie’s screenplay provides for people whom Oz knows in Kansas to reappear as other characters in Oz. Yet there’s no hint that Oz is dreaming, as Judy Garland’s character was. Nor does Oz recognize the resemblance between his Kansas girlfriend and his Oz girlfriend.

And that girlfriend points to the second big influence: Wicked. (The hit stage show, not Gregory Maguire’s novel.) Again, the moviemakers didn’t have the rights to make Wicked, and they had a very different conception of the Wizard. But the screenplay is designed to set off the same nostalgic neurons that produce applause during the stage play, whenever the story foretells some detail from the movie: a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, and so on. And of course the Wicked Witch of the West starts out as sympathetic.

One of the biggest changes in Wicked’s journey from book to stage was the inclusion of a happy ending for Elphaba, with a boyfriend. Oz the Great and Powerful likewise ends with Oz and Glinda paired off. There’s no hint of that in the MGM movie, even less than none in Baum’s books, but apparently Hollywood demands a romantic ending. (To be fair, Baum inserted such pairings in most of his stage and screen adaptations of his books, and imported them back into books he based on his scripts.)

A third, smaller influence is Disney’s theme park and merchandising divisions. When the Wizard arrives in Oz, his balloon lands in a raging river, and we’re then treated to a water slide in 3-D. The climax involves fireworks bursting over the turreted city. I was pleased that Mari Ness also noted the similarity between that action and Disney’s nightly fireworks display. And the corporation already has a ton of collectibles on sale.

Indeed, the main takeaway from Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a great screenplay or powerful acting (hard to do without a great screenplay), but spectacle and nostalgia. On that level it succeeds—quite well enough to make hundreds of millions of dollars. But I doubt it will have the real emotional impact as any of its predecessors and influences.

20 March 2013

What Oz the Great and Powerful Draws from Baum’s Works

The credits for Oz the Great and Powerful say the movie is “Based on the Works of L. Frank Baum.” Those works are in the public domain, meaning the moviemakers could use as many details from Baum’s Oz books as they wanted for free.

In fact, the moviemakers used very few details from those books, aside from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz itself, filtered through other versions (more on that tomorrow). Fans of the series have been tallying the items they recognize from the later books, and the list is short:
  • The Wizard’s full name is as stated in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908). That book also adds a few details to what the Wizard told Dorothy earlier about his arrival in Oz and finding himself caught between the witches.
  • When a map of Oz appears, it includes the name “Wogglebug.” Baum introduced that character in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), and the maps credited to his highly educated self appeared in Tik-Tok of Oz (1915).
  • A group of mechanically inclined inventors is called the Tinkers, and Ozma of Oz (1907) includes a Mr. Tinker as co-inventor of the Tik-Tok the clockwork man.
  • As discussed yesterday, The Road to Oz (1909) introduced the notion of traveling inside a bubble. That main inspiration for that detail of the new movie nonetheless appears to be its reappearance in the 1939 movie.
  • Oz has to escape from aggressive plants in a forest, reminiscent of man-eating flowers in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). However, since both the book and movie forms of The Wizard of Oz include aggressive plants, Patchwork Girl might not be the source.
  • The land of Oz’s recent history echoes the situation Glinda explains in The Marvelous Land of Oz: the last rightful king was deposed and destroyed, leaving a daughter out of power. In the books, that daughter is Ozma. In Oz the Great and Powerful, that daughter is Glinda herself.
That last tidbit demonstrates the new movie’s real relationship to Baum’s books. While crediting them as its basis, the new movie’s story is incompatible with them.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for example, the Wizard explains that he oversaw the building of the Emerald City and had his subjects wear green glasses, ostensibly to shield their eyes but really to make the city glow like emeralds. In the new movie Oz arrives at the Emerald City, its green towers already scraping the sky. That leaves less for him to do.

And there’s no way for this land of Oz to become the fairyland of The Marvelous Land of Oz and beyond because there’s no way to fit Ozma into that political history. The new movie’s Glinda is not only the Good Witch of the South as in the books and the obvious analogue of the Good Witch of the North in the 1939 movie, but also the rightful heir to the throne of the Emerald City.

There’s nothing wrong with offshoots of the original mythos. Indeed, Baum was so unconcerned with consistency that he created offshoots in his own books and plays. But this latest version of Oz isn’t on a trajectory to end up at the happy paradise under Princess Ozma where Baum ultimately left us.

19 March 2013

Inspiration Bubbling Up

Even with the relatively awkward special effects of 1939, Glinda’s pink bubble in The Wizard of Oz is an American icon. So much so that the Wicked stage show reproduced that entrance.
The new Oz the Great and Powerful movie is not supposed to infringe on the 1939 film’s copyright, however. Fortunately for its makers, L. Frank Baum and John R. Neill portrayed travel in giant bubbles at the end of The Road to Oz. (Curiously, it’s one of the few adventures Dorothy turns down.)
With that book in the public domain, Sam Raimi and company could show people in bubbles, and even make them Glinda’s thing, as long as they weren’t perfectly round and pink. In fact, with CGI animation they could show the Wizard’s weight bending his bubble out of its spherical shape. But there’s really no doubt those bubbles are supposed to evoke the 1939 movie, not Baum’s lesser-known 1909 sequel.
For the next couple of days I’ll discuss the sources of Oz the Great and Powerful—the official sources and the real ones.

18 March 2013

Better Nate to Come?

Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Never is a novel for tween readers that fills a particular niche: a story of a stagestruck boy that deals almost openly with being gay. In other words, Nate’s sexuality is obvious to readers, and as a thirteen-year-old narrator he’s only a hair’s breadth away from acknowledging it.

(Which is more than the New York Times Book Review could do; actor Bob Balaban’s recommendation of the book dares not speak of that aspect.)

Some years back I wrote about the gay reading of Susan Cooper’s 1999 novel King of Shadows, also the story of a teen-aged actor far from home. But that book downplays homosexuality when it comes to the young hero and William Shakespeare.

Better Nate Than Never is more a novel of our time. And I suspect that it will become dated rather quickly. It’s perched at a moment when Nokia cell phones are present but unfashionable and iPhones still something special. Brand names like that are ubiquitous in teenagers’ lives, but writers are advised to avoid them because they can change quickly and date a book. In another five years Nate’s book-length quest for a Nokia charger could be as quaint as a character using a payphone.

More problematic for me was the novel’s plotting. The story involves Nate running away to New York to audition for the lead in a musical production of E.T. Not once but twice, and possibly three times at the end, the storyline turns on the show’s producers calling that Nokia cell phone to say that they’ve completely changed their minds since the last time we heard from them. Perhaps this is how the theater business works, but each additional shift in this novel seems more like a convenience for the sake of a sudden plot twist.

As for other plot elements, page 28 tells us that Nate’s father had an affair the previous winter, and that never comes up again. A religious backstory pops up on page 178, two-thirds of the way through the book, with no follow-up. Nate’s mother has a drinking problem that’s crucial to resolving the plot yet not introduced until page 228.

Author Tim Federle knows the milieu of his book well: like Nate, he grew up in greater Pittsburgh and lit out for Broadway. But his training is in acting, not fiction, and this was his first novel. Better Nate Than Never will undoubtedly speak to some readers more than anything else on the children’s shelf right now, and that rarity gives it value. But I suspect that, just as the next big thing in smartphones is on its way, there will soon be better constructed middle-grade novels taking the same stage. Perhaps even the upcoming sequel to this book from Tim Federle.

17 March 2013

What’s Happened to Damian Now?

Damian Wayne lives on in the Batman: Li’l Gotham digital-first comics by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, along with Nightwing’s blue stripe, Oracle, and Cass Cain.

Damian’s even featured on a very cute variant cover of the first print collection, drawn by Chris Burnham.

But really, this isn’t Damian. In the latest Li’l Gotham download he says things like, “Welp, I’ve got nuthin’. Who’s up for fixing me a sandwich? Peanut butter and banana, my favorite.”

The Damian Wayne developed over the past few years in the main comics could be that demanding, but he’d express himself with hauteur instead of whiny slang. And he’d never admit to failure.

16 March 2013

How We Came to Have “Gender Discrimination”

Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New Yorker includes this choice example of the value of choosing the right words for one’s readership:

“I was doing all these sex-discrimination cases, and my secretary said, ‘I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about,’ ” Ginsburg recalled. Henceforth, she changed her claim to “gender discrimination.”
English speakers get to refer to most objects as neuter, and don’t need to adjust adjectival forms to fit accordingly. As a result, we had little need for the concept of “gender” outside of people’s (or animals’) biological sexes.

At the same time, we’d replaced a perfectly understandable Anglo-Saxon monosyllable with the Latinate “have sexual intercourse,” and then boiled that back down to a monosyllable, “sex.” That meant Ginsburg as an attorney had one fine word, “gender,” hardly being used, and another fine word, “sex,” pulling double duty.

What’s more, she was arguing before a court that included Justice Potter Stewart, whose most famous formulation for the law books was a remark about pornography. His quick judgment about what he saw had legal weight, and, as Ginsburg and her team suspected, that might have applied to the word “sex” as well.

15 March 2013

Mike Lee Questioning the President’s Motives

This week Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) ventured onto the friendly confines of FOX News and criticized President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Senate Republican caucus.

Lee quoted an exchange this way:
An unnamed Republican Senator: “You know, Mr. President, it’s not all that helpful to have you publicly questioning our motives, publicly accusing us of wanting to eviscerate Medicaid, for example, simply because we want to call for reform or block grants.”

President Obama: “I don’t speak nearly as badly about you as some of you do about me.”
Lee complained, “It struck me as somewhat sophomoric. . . . I don’t see a lot of Republicans, especially Senate Republicans, standing up and openly questioning the president’s motives from the standpoint of not caring about people.”

Lee has apparently forgotten how, for example, in April 2011 a Senator gave a floor speech that said about the President:
…why did he opt not to pass a budget for fiscal year 2011? It was either irresponsible on one hand or deliberate and malicious on the other with intention to bring about a sequence of events that would culminate inevitably in a government shutdown.
Never mind that the President doesn’t “pass a budget”—that’s the Constitutional prerogative of the Congress. In this Senator’s eyes (and mouth), the President was either “irresponsible” or “deliberate and malicious.” That certainly looks like “standing up and openly questioning the president’s motives from the standpoint of not caring about people.”

But of course Sen. Lee didn’t see a colleague do that because the Senator making that wild accusation was Sen. Lee himself.

Setting up double standards? Claiming the worst about President Obama? Using language that demeans the President’s maturity and intellect? Lee managed to score three for three. Clearly he’s in the grip of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

13 March 2013

Powers that Comics Editors Need

Comic Book Resources carried an interesting dialogue between Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti, two comics writers who first edited superhero comics for Marvel in the 1980s.

It included this discussion of editing methods:

Nocenti: I worked with Jim Shooter first and, whatever ill things you want to say about him, he was obsessed with basic Aristotelian plot structure: introduce a character visually, introduce a conflict, what’s the theme? He had a really good grounding in how to tell a story.

Then I worked with Al Milgrom, and what was great about Milgrom was, he’d take the pages that came in and put a piece of tracing paper over them and physically scribble over and re-do the artist’s layouts to show how you could do them better.

Then, when I worked with Weezie, I learned—this is one of the biggest things I learned from you, Weezie—how to get what you want from the writers and artists and have them leave the office with their tails wagging, not realizing they had to re-do everything!

Simonson: [Laughs] I think that's just a legend. I can’t believe I actually did that!

Nocenti: You did! You would sit there and say, “This is really great, this plot is great, but maybe you should make sure this happens,” and they would be like, “Oh yeah!” And then they’d go home and rewrite! We used to say that Weezie’s superpower was she had the power to cloud men’s minds.
Did Simonson’s kindness toward creators grow from her upbringing as a woman at a particular time in the twentieth century? Certainly there were male editors notorious for treating creators badly.

Later Nocenti talks about the different experiences of editing comic books for one of the big companies and creating them for pay:
As an editor, you just have to get something to the printer. You have to make tough decisions, you have to fire people, it has to sell. Then, as a freelancer, you’re at home and you’re lonely and you’re writing by yourself. You’re scared and you don’t know what’s going on with all the corporate people above you. So if you’ve been on both sides, you’re a better editor and a freelancer.
That’s one way to develop empathy if you don’t have it already.

12 March 2013

A Vision of Dorothy and the Emerald City

ArtBoy Gallery in Australia launched an online “FanBoy vs ArtBoy” exhibit of work inspired by The Wizard of Oz. For most contributors that meant the MGM movie, but some created original visions. This stylized portrait of Dorothy and the Emerald City is by “Jubly-Oomph,” and is available for sale (presumably in Australian dollars).

10 March 2013

Grant Morrison on the Dynamic of the Duo

Last month Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast featured a three-part conversation with Grant Morrison as he retires from scripting Batman, Incorporated. Most of the discussion appears in episodes #26 and #27, with five minutes about the imminent death of Damian Wayne moved to the start of #28 to avoid spoilers in a story that DC Comics eagerly spoiled.

About 31:30 into the second installment, Morrison once again explains his approach to the Batman mythos, deciding that every era of stories happened (in some form) to Bruce Wayne:

The feral young Batman from 1938 [sic] who’s out there with guns in his hands, and is fighting vampires and crooks, and I thought, well, imagine that’s Batman when he’s twenty. And then he meets this kid when he’s late twenty-one, and the kid’s this little working-class circus kid, who’s totally cocky, and this introverted young-Norman-Bates Batman is suddenly, “Wait a minute, this is the kid that died in me…this is everything I wanted to be.” And the two become friends, and it’s no creepy, no way, it’s just like, “He’s my best friend, my brother, and he’s everything I wish I could be,” and the kid’s looking at him and saying, “He’s everything I wish I could be.”
I had to transcribe and share that passage.

If you download the whole series, don’t miss the exchange at the end of #27 (starting at 55:50) about Morrison’s accent. Smith admits that he worried about being able to understand the interview. Morrison responds by demonstrating “the hard-core killer Glasgow accent.” Try it at home!

09 March 2013

Steve Murray Illustrates Everyone in Oz

One of the nice effects of the Oz the Great and Powerful opening is how it’s inspired a lot of Oz art. Up in Canada, the National Post’s Steve Murray took on the monumental task of depicting every character in L. Frank Baum’s fourteen Oz novels. Here’s just a slice of the magnificent result.

The scale might look a little off, but that’s because those big folks in the background at top are giants. They tend to cluster in Baum’s late books.

For the full image, with annotations on each character and a key to which books they first appear in, visit the National Post.

07 March 2013

Of Witches and Women

At Film.com, Elisabeth Rappe offers an essay titled “Why ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Is a Major Step Back for Witches and Women.” It builds on the questions that Aisha Harris raised in Slate last fall, but Rappe has the advantage of having actually seen the movie.

Rappe makes some mistakes in describing L. Frank Baum’s work. She says, “He wrote 17 Oz books,” though the usual enumeration is fourteen Oz novels. We can get to seventeen by adding the Little Wizard Stories of Oz collection and the allied books Sea Fairies and Sky Island, but should we then also add Baum’s other non-Oz fantasies tied into the same magical region?

More problematic, the essay later lists Trot among the series’ male heroes, and says she, Cap’n Bill, and Ojo are “one-offs, never to return.” It would strengthen the essay’s argument about the importance of Baum’s female characters to note that Trot is a little girl, and she plays a major role in four of the seventeen books listed above as well as going along on two more adventures.

Later Rappe says Susan B. Anthony was a “frequent visitor” at Baum’s house. Anthony definitely visited his mother-in-law Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house in Fayetteville, New York, but I’m not sure she dropped in on the next generation. Again, Rappe’s underlying statement that Baum wrote from within the first wave of American feminism is accurate, but unreliable details undercut the essay’s authority.

The essay states:
Baum…made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They’re princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat. Perhaps most significantly, none of the characters—not Ozma, Glinda, Betsy or Dorothy—ever engage in romantic relationships. Baum made a point of avoiding such trappings as love interests, because he believed children would find passionate romance boring, and an emotional element which they wouldn’t truly understand.
All true, except that Baum included romantic subplots in Tik-Tok of Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz. He maintained Dorothy, Ozma, and his other main heroines as preadolescent, not ready for romance. In Baum’s books, only Glinda is eligible for a love interest, and she’s not interested in men.

Which brings us to Rappe’s critique of the new movie’s storyline:
In a bitter reversal of Baum’s stories, “Great and Powerful” casts the women as the sidekicks, standing by to aid the Wizard should he need it. No longer instigators of action, the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived (“Aren’t you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” asks Theodora, voice trembling. Actually, all the female dialogue seems to be on the wobbly verge of tears). Whereas Baum’s charlatan Wizard accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process, now we have one who has a place carved out for him, and is hailed as the man “who can set things right” . . .

Yes, Michelle Williams’ Glinda is smart enough to see through our hero’s lies and bluster, but otherwise she’s completely stripped of any real agency. “Great and Powerful” corrects Baum’s grievous abstinence, and reminds us all women must fall for a handsome traveler. The modern day Wizard now wins at least 2/3 of the onscreen hearts instead of being shamed as a liar.
Again, this overstates the case a bit. Baum’s books didn’t say the Wizard “accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process.” He carved out a witch-free zone in the center of the country, built the land’s major metropolis, and maintained a peaceful prosperity for his subjects for many years. Of course, it took Dorothy and Glinda to restore the proper Ozian order, but the humbug Wizard was actually a moderate success.

That sort of slant makes me wonder if Oz the Great and Powerful really shows its Wizard succeeding so easily, or whether most of the movie is his struggle to fill the role the witches expect of him when he arrives, reforming himself in the process? Is Glinda truly “stripped of any real agency,” or is she happy to let this new arrival bumble along as she protects her own realm and bides her time? I suspect Rappe is on target about the movie, but the essay’s little errors make room for doubt.

Gili Bar-Hillel, a scholar of fantasy literature who’s seen the movie already, responded to the critiques from Rappe and others by noting that Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: “(1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.” As a Hollywood picture made by men and titled for a male character, that’s not surprising. But considering the feminist source material, it’s a missed opportunity.

06 March 2013

Getting Oz Censorship Right

This week’s posting at Banned Books Awareness highlighted L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a story kept off certain shelves over the years. Unfortunately, it overstated the case with this anecdote:
In 2004 both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson conspired to get the movie banned from broadcast on public television because of “moral turpitude.” Robertson would publically state that “The Almighty told me that flying monkeys and witches are an affront to all good Christians.”

When asked at the time if either had ever seen the movie or read the book, they denied, saying that they “feared ungodly influence.”
Those quotes and the story came from this story at Deadbrain.com, a parody site that describes itself as “America’s least reliable news source.” Falwell, Robertson, and the FCC were too politically savvy to take on an American institution like the television showings of the MGM Wizard of Oz.

Complaints about how Baum depicted witches as potentially good, like Glinda, did fuel some small-town religious challenges to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the late 1900s. However, religious objections had little to do with the policy of several big library systems not to stock the Oz books in the middle of that century. I think there’s a risk of projecting present-day issues back into earlier controversies.

As memos reprinted in The Baum Bugle in 2000 showed, some American librarians objected to restocking the Oz books because they were:
  • fantastic and unrealistic.
  • a long series of increasingly indifferent literary quality.
  • cheaply made (and enthusiastically read) and thus quick to wear out.
Glinda had nothing to do with it.

In 1957, this Toledo Blade article shows, Detroit library head Ralph Ulveling told a state library conference: “There is nothing uplifting or elevating about the [Oz] series.” He said they promulgated “negativism” and have “no value.” [Not “no value for children of today,” as the Banned Book Awareness article and other webpages render the quotation.] Some sources state that Ulveling also said the books dragged children down to a “cowardly level,” but that’s a paraphrase from the Blade’s editorial against Ulveling’s policy.

Two years later, Florida librarian Dorothy Dodd wrote a memo calling the Oz books “unwholesome for children in your community.” But, as this editorial in Life magazine shows, she didn’t single out the Oz books. She grouped that series with “Uncle Wiggly [sic], Tom Swift, Tarzan, the Bobbsey Twins,…Horatio Alger, the Campfire Girls, the Hardy Boys, and others of the ilk.” That editorial also reports and exemplifies the reaction against Dodd’s edict.

The 1950s brought to light other examples of librarians choosing not to stock or shelve the Oz books. But that institutional disapproval wasn’t really a reflection of the decade. In at least some cases, those practices had been in place for years. Responding to critics, Ulveling protested that he was simply explaining a policy that was three decades old.

The fact that people were asking about the Oz books and newspapers were covering the controversy showed how Americans of that decade wanted more access to the series. Few people complain about libraries stocking books that nobody wants. In 1956, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entered the public domain, and in 1959 the MGM movie was shown on television for the first time. Widespread access to the original story cemented its place in American culture, good witches and all.

05 March 2013

Yes, I’ve Heard About the New Movie

Soon after I first joined the International Wizard of Oz Club in late 1976, its journal, The Baum Bugle, was full of articles about the making of the The Wiz. How many stars the movie would have! How many costumes had been sewn! How many square miles of yellow linoleum had been laid in New York City to simulate the Yellow Brick Road!

Then the movie came out, a critical and financial disappointment. Bad casting and overproduction not only sank the film but in some ways ended the “blaxploitation” business for years.

A few years later, the journal reported the imminent arrival of Return to Oz, Disney’s first big-budget attempt to use its movie rights to L. Frank Baum’s later Oz books. Again, the technical aspects of the production caught the attention of the press, particularly the appearances of many Baum characters and such feats as filming in a hall of mirrors.

Then the movie came out. As Buzzfeed’s article “The 11 Most Traumatizing Moments from Return to Oz catalogues, it was a dreary, anxiety-ridden mashup of two of Baum’s most popular novels. The movie has many moments straight from my childhood favorites, all in a tone that made me wonder why they had ever appealed to me so strongly.

That track record is why I haven’t been writing enthusiastically, or even mildly optimistically, about Oz the Great and Powerful, due out this weekend. I’m curious about this new movie, but I’ve been disappointed before.

Newspapers and magazines, needing content to separate one movie studio’s ads from another, have offered many articles this month on the production and the Oz mythos. The New York Times’s contribution on Sunday started out by spelling the name of the Good Witch of the South as “Glenda.” The Boston Globe’s design-driven discussion of Oz’s influence on American culture didn’t even mention Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. So I’m not becoming any more optimistic.

03 March 2013

The Death of Damian Wayne

The big Boy Wonder news of the week is, of course, the death of Damian Wayne in Batman, Incorporated, #8. Comics fans lamented his loss, even if they couldn’t all spell his name right. Just a fortnight ago the “Death of a Family” crossover climaxed with no actual deaths, leaving some fans disappointed. One hopes it’s not the same fans.

Of course, Damian Wayne’s death has no more correlation to death in the real world than his short life has to real lives. He was created in a milieu of artificial insemination, incubators, and genetic hybrids (which should give pause to those trying to calculate the timing of the DC Universe based on assumptions that he was conceived and raised naturally). Similarly, Damian died in a storyline that includes clones, resurrection pools, and time travel. The “Robin RIP” issue came at the beginning of a four-issue arc, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see hints of the character’s return in some form by the end.

What interests me most about this development is what it says about collaborative storytelling. Grant Morrison pitched the idea of Bruce Wayne and Talia al-Ghul having a son back in 2005, thinking he'd kill off the child right away if he proved interesting only as a plot point. But Damian’s extreme personality proved fun to write, not just for Morrison but for other Batman scripters.

Morrison told the adventures of a new Dynamic Duo—Batman the Boy Wonder and the goddamn Robin. Among DC’s other writers, Bryan Q. Miller might have been most successful with Damian in Batgirl because his personality made such a contrast with Stephanie Brown’s, but there were also fine stories from Paul Dini in Streets of Gotham and J. T. Krul in Teen Titans.

The result is a six-year storyline played out over multiple crossovers and two continuities. At heart, Morrison was expanding “Punish Not My Evil Son!” from The Brave and the Bold, #83, written by Bob Haney (and reprinted in the first volume of Neal Adams’s Batman work). As in that single-issue story, Bruce Wayne is surprised to become the father of a nasty brat, causing trouble for his household and everyone else. But eventually the moral example of Dick Grayson turns the kid around, and he dies heroically in the Robin costume.
Of course, the story of Damian Wayne is more complex, layered, and successful. It became intertwined with Batman seeming to die and with Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Stephanie Brown taking on new coming-of-age identities. Damian was a prize in a worldwide war between his parents. The one glitch: I don’t think anyone could have engineered a satisfying story about Dick Grayson’s return to being Nightwing. Instead, DC rebooted its whole universe.

Morrison’s fellow writers were privy to his ultimate plan for Damian Wayne, at least to the extent of being warned off storylines that might ruin that virgin territory. Scott Snyder, present writer of Batman and current primary plotter for the rest of the line, has tweeted that he learned about Morrison’s plan when he got the assignment to write about the Caped Crusader.

Even more interesting is the work of Peter J. Tomasi, who was the editor who first heard Morrison’s pitch. In 2008 he left the editorial desk to become a scripter, taking over Nightwing even though he knew that magazine would soon end. In 2011 he took over Batman and Robin while knowing that eventually that partnership would be ripped apart. Tomasi just gave interviews to Comic Book Resources and Newsarama about how he’d laced the latter magazine with intimations of Damian’s death. The immediate plan is to continue it with a focus on ex-Robins, but, like Batman, Incorporated, it might be in for more profound changes or retirement.

Damian’s death resets the life of Bruce Wayne in more ways than one. Not only does he no longer have a young boy to keep out of trouble, but he has a dead partner to mourn. From 1989 to 2004 the late Jason Todd filled that role. But it’s awfully hard to mourn a Robin who’s alive and well. (“The Joker killed me! And, um, I got better.”) Now Damian can haunt the family as Jason did. There’s even a trophy case waiting.

Robin has always been the littlest guy in the fight—that’s part of the character’s identity and appeal. In some previous DC Universes Dick Grayson took up the role at the age of eight, and artists have enjoyed depicting the contrast between the spindly little kid and the tall, muscular Dark Knight. In the rebooted universe, however, Dick didn’t meet Bruce Wayne until his teens, making Damian the youngest boy ever to have become Robin—thus the littlest guy of all. And yet, the only foe to take that Robin down turned out to be his own genetic twin, grown to fearsome size, assisted by other members of the League of Assassins.

What’s next among Robins? The odds favor a young woman whom Snyder has introduced in Batman named Harper Row. While it would be good to see a female Robin again (the first in the current continuity), I’m old enough to remember the obvious inspiration for that name: the venerable American publisher Harper & Row, now subsumed into the HarperCollins division of Newscorp. I keep wondering if the new Robin will carry a torch, as on the old Harper & Row colophon, and peddle Maurice Sendak books. >tt<